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Always Sweethearts In Song

For no other reason than that 2012 marks 35 years since The Canadian Sweethearts broke up their act (a few years after their marriage had hit the skids), it seems appropriate to pay tribute to this husband and wife duo from the north country. Recording for A&M and Epic between 1963 and 1967, vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Bob Regan and his wife, the reedy-voiced Lucille Starr, made a lot of good records in a folk-country vein, plus a couple of rockabilly-styled winners (their 1958 single “Eeny-Meeny-Miney-Mo” got them a tip of the hat from the Rockabilly Hall of Fame) and several straight-ahead honky tonk tunes showcasing their affecting Dale & Grace-style harmonies (which may be why they recorded D&G’s 1963 chart topper “I’m Leavin’ It Up To You”—written by Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Dewey Terry, better known as the Specialty Records duo Don and Dewey). In their native Canada they were quite popular, and were regularly featured on TV shows, but Stateside they never gained much commercial traction despite building a devoted fan base and touring steadily. Rarely mentioned in histories of country music, the Sweethearts have something going for them in that their work has aged quite nicely, and lives on.

Lucille Starr & Bob Regan, ‘I’m Leavin’ It Up to You’

Born Robert Frederickson on March 13, 1931, in Rolla, near Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada, Bob Regan was a musical prodigy, playing harmonica, guitar, mandolin and fiddle as a child. After leaving school, he went on the road with one of his brothers, a country singer who performed professionally as Keray Regan, whose stage surname Bob also adopted. In 1958 he made his first recording with Keray’s band, the Peace River Rangers. An instrumental titled “Teenage Boogie”  (not the Webb Pierce song but a bopping Regan original was sparked by some wild fiddling and exuberant Cajun accordion behind Bob’s surf- and rockabilly-influenced guitar sorties) was released on the Aragon label. The B-side of “Teenage Boogie” featured Bob with his first female duet partner, his sister Fern, on the song “I Will Never Hold Another.” After Fern married in 1955, Bob, while playing for a friend’s wedding party, found a new distaff duet partner in Manitoba-born, British Columbia (Port Coquitlam)-raised Lucille Savoie, who was then performing as Lucille Starr.

‘Teenage Boogie,’ The Peace River Rangers, with Bob Regan playing some hot guitar on his first recording (1958)

Influenced by fellow Canadian Hank Snow and classic pop legend Peggy Lee, Lucille had begun singing in her teens, first in a French ensemble, Les Hirondelles, before beginning her solo career as Lucille Starr in Vancouver in 1954. After meeting Bob, she became his partner on and off stage—they married in 1958, then relocated to California and its thriving country music scene, where they worked as Bob and Lucille. Promoter Norm Riley, who had briefly managed both Hank Snow and Hank Williams and was co-owner of the popular country music club Riverside Rancho (in addition to running his own Hollywood-based record label, Ditto Records), took Bob and Lucille under his wing. The duo’s first Ditto single was the aforementioned “Eeny-Meeny-Miney-Moe,” released in December 1958. Taking the vocal lead, Lucille, though not quite as freewheeling as Wanda Jackson, exhibits a flair for the spirited, hiccupping rockabilly vocal style (her hiccups tend to ascend into her upper register where they become charming squeaks) in a driving arrangement peppered with Bob’s stinging, trebly guitar interjections.

Bob and Lucille’s first single, ‘Eeny-Meeny-Miney-Moe,’ written by Bob Regan and released on Ditto Records, 1958, has been honored by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Their second Ditto single, in late 1959, was “The Big Kiss” (b/w “What’s the Password”), another uptempo number minus the rockabilly flourishes but with the added oomph of a sputtering sax, plus a flirty Lucille vocal reminiscent at times of Connie Francis’s phrasing and timbre. Though it was not a hit, the single was later picked up and reissued by King (in April 1962, no less). “The Big Kiss” would be the last single for Bob and Lucille; when they signed with the Soma label, they were billing themselves as the Canadian Sweethearts. Their 1961 single, “No Help Wanted,” was a fine, lively cover of the legendary Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle’s #1 1953 hit. Carlisle, a rhythm-bound country artist who had begun performing with his brother Cliff in the 1920s, went solo after Cliff retired in 1950 and continued on in the humorous, slightly suggestive and fiercely driving style the brothers had perfected, which in fact was a template for what would later be called rockabilly; Jumpin’ Bill was likely to break out in yodels during his frenzied performances, and on “No Help Wanted” Lucille, in addition to answering Bob’s queries with a delicious, affirmative growl, does just that near the end, as if acknowledging the Carlisles’ influence. So skilled a yodeler was Lucille that she was hired to do the yodeling for the character of Cousin Pearl on several episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies.

The Beverly Hillbillies, ‘Jed Plays Solomon,’ Season 1, Episode 21. Granny (Irene Ryan) calls the police in an attempt to stop Pearl Bodine’s (Bea Benaderet) incessant yodeling, but her plan backfires when the officers discover her still. Pearl’s yodeling voice was supplied by Lucille Starr of the Canadian Sweethearts.

‘The Big Kiss,’ Bob and Lucille’s second Ditto single, released in late 1959, featured Lucille’s Connie Francis-styled vocal. It was picked up and reissued in 1962 by King Records.

At A&M Records, owners Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss had noticed the Canadian Sweethearts, and signed them up in 1963. With their big break at hand, the duo did its part by making a series of wonderful singles, but nothing much came of their commercial efforts. Cutting country songs, original songs written by Bob or by Bob and Lucille together, and covering contemporary folk songs (including Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind”), their versatility was as impressive as their lack of a breakout hit was baffling. Only their 1964 single “Hootenanny Express” charted (#45 country), although three other A&M singles (“Stand Upon the Mountain,” “Lookin’ Back to See,” both from 1965, and 1966’s “Don’t Knock On My Door”) did great in Canada, charting at, respectively, #5, #2 and #1. They also cut two A&M albums, 1962’s Say You Love Me (on which they were billed as Bob Regan and Lucille Starr) and 1964’s Introducing the Canadian Sweethearts.

The first Canadian Sweethearts single, a cover of Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle’s #1 single from 1953, ‘No Help Wanted,’ recorded for the Soma label (1961).

The biggest hit the Sweethearts (or sweethearts, as it were) had was not as a duo but by Lucille as a solo artist, in 1964, with “The French Song” (“Quand Le Soleil Dit Bonjour Aux Montagnes”). A heartbreaking bilingual tune sung partly in French and partly in English, with the feel of a country heartbreaker and the melancholy of a Piaf confessional, it was given a touching treatment by Ms. Starr, beautifully nuanced and deeply felt, so affecting it’s a wonder the singer wasn’t positioned as a successor to the recently deceased Patsy Cline. The single peaked at #54 Stateside, but was a smash in Europe, where it topped numerous charts. A&M issued an album titled after the single, and it yielded a number of other hit singles overseas (notably the lovely, Cajun-flavored pop delicacy “Jolie Jacqueline”; a French-English version of the Singing Nun’s hit “Dominque” that blends Dixieland and country influences; and especially “Colinda,” which was on the charts longer than “The French Song,” at 21 weeks, though it peaked at #3)

Lucille Starr’s first solo hit, an international smash, ‘Colinda’ (1964), from the album The French Song

‘Jolie Jacqueline,’ another international hit from The French Song album (1964)

Lucille Starr’s country- and Dixieland-influenced treatment of the Singing Nun’s hit ‘Dominique,’ from The French Song album (1964)

Bob, too, took a stab at solo work. “Tarantula,’ his guitar instrumental released on the Challenge label in 1964, showcases a smoking amalgam of surf-rockabilly-psychobilly guitar work with a definite interstellar flair about it; it may have been so out there, in fact, as to be uncategorizable, but it was also coming at a time when the rock instrumental single was on the wane with the rise of the British Invasion. The flip side, “Highland Lassie,” was not quite as bizarre, being more a straightforward, driving workout with the added flair of Scottish bagpipes adding an exotic twist to the tune’s surf milieu as defined by Bob’s dynamic playing.

Bob Regan’s 1964 Challenge single, ‘Tarantula,’ a smoking amalgam of surf-rockabilly-psychobilly guitar that may have been so out there as to be uncategorizable.

The flip side of Bob Regan’s 1964 Challenge single, ‘Highland Lassie’

A move to Epic Records in 1967 didn’t get Bob and Lucille much farther along that they had gone with A&M. Two singles, “Let’s Wait a Little Longer” (1968) and “Dream Baby” (1970), charted at #51 and #50, respectively, in the U.S., with the latter climbing to #28 on the Canadian chart; and one album, 1967’s The Canadian Sweethearts (telling subtitled Side by Side: Pop & Country), came and went without much fanfare.

The Canadian Sweethearts, ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ (1964)

The Canadian Sweethearts, ‘Hootenanny Express’ (1964)

The Canadian Sweethearts, ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’ (1964)

The couple divorced in 1967 but continued to perform together occasionally until 1977, when they decided it was time the Canadian Sweethearts be sweethearts no more.

Continuing her successful solo career, Lucille had several hit singles in Canada during the 1980s, never again achieving the heights she enjoyed with “The French Song” but carving out a solid, respectable niche for herself as a top-tier interpretive vocalist fluent in English, French and Spanish. In 2010 a jukebox musical based on her career titled Back to You: The Life and Music of Lucille Starr (script by Tracey Power), had a short run at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg, and she’s also had a street named in her honor in the city of Coquitlam, British Columbia. In 1987 she became the first woman inducted into the Canadian Country Music Association Hall of Honour and in 1989 was made a member of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. Her son, Bob Frederickson, was the guitarist in a later version of Buffalo Springfield.

Lucille Starr’s 1968 recording of ‘Lonely Street,’ the song that was a #5 pop hit for Andy Williams in 1959 and has become a country standard cut by the likes of Patsy Cline, George Jones, Marty Robbins, its writer Carl Belew, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Tillotson and, most recently, bluegrass giant Doyle Lawson, among many others.

Lucille Star, live in 1990 at the Floralia Festival in Oosterhout, Holland, performing ‘I’ll Go Stepping Too,’ ‘Making Believe’ and ‘Cotton Fields’

For his part, Bob Regan teamed up with a new female counterpart in Keree Rose and continued performing until his passing in Los Angeles on March 5, 1990.

The Canadian Sweethearts, Side by Side: Pop & Country, side one

The Canadian Sweethearts, Side by Side: Pop & Country, side two

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